A couple of weeks ago I started writing a review of Rose Tremain’s Merivel and got sidetracked into writing about how I discovered Tremain as an author. I’ve since been distracted by a variety of other events, as the kind regular readers of this blog will appreciate, but I was determined to get back to Merivel eventually and today I have finally managed it.
Merivel is subtitled ‘A Man of His Time’. The significance and the poignancy of this gradually dawns on the reader as the book goes on, because Merivel is the sequel to Restoration, the stellar novel that made me one of Tremain’s undying admirers. Restoration is about Charles II in his heyday and how Merivel, also in his prime, acts as the King’s physician and performs other, more private, services that bind them together in a not altogether comfortable but mutually affectionate relationship. In Merivel, by contrast, both the protagonist and the king are ageing. Merivel might be ‘man of his time’, but the question is, which time? His old bones creak. He suffers various bereavements, some of them tragic almost beyond endurance; he has the opportunity to embark upon one last turbulent full-blown love affair, with Louise, a beautiful, poised and aristocratic woman twenty years his junior, and discovers that when it comes to it he does not have the stomach to reciprocate her own hot-blooded desires. He continues to practise as a physician, and with some skill, Tremain implies, but still he can work only with the primitive methods known to doctors of his day. It is a measure of Tremain’s expertise that she can immerse her reader in the late seventeenth century and yet still offer a perspective based on modern knowledge. The account of Merivel’s operation on Violet Bathurst’s tumour is both horrific and beautifully written.
Yet Merivel is much more than a pensive account of the decline of two elderly men, one an eminent monarch, the other an obscure doctor, and their contemporaries. It is also a brilliant satire, not just on the Caroline age, but also about humanity in any age – though perhaps satire is too strong a word: Tremain can be hard-hitting, but to say that Merivel is a comedy of manners might convey better what I mean, as long as this does not imply that the novel is not ‘serious’.
But perhaps ‘serious’ is not the right word either! Some of the scenes are absurdly comic, some pathetically so. The account of the abortive sojourn of both Merivel and Jan Hollers, the clock-making Dutchman, at the court of Louis XIV, demonstrates both their absurdity (each is out to make a fast buck if he can) and the pathos of their situation (Hollers is a skilled craftsman whose precision-made clocks are rejected by the King’s dour mistress, Madame de Maintenon, simply because they don’t keep the same time as the no doubt faulty clock over the palace coach-house in whose accuracy she invests all her faith; Merivel, despite the letters of introduction with which he is armed and the intervention of his new mistress, never manages to meet the King.). Sometimes Tremain writes with Rabelaisian gusto, as in the scene that takes place with the ‘drab’ in the carriage when Merivel is at last on his way to Switzerland to be reunited with Louise (this woman, the sole female fellow-traveller in a full coach, despite her grotesque proportions and shameless habits, succeeds in inflaming lust in all of her companions, and persuades each of them in turn to pay for sex while the others look on). The drab scene is pivotal to the novel, because it represents Merivel’s last act of bawdy – and it is a tawdry parody of all the hilarious and unrepentant romps that took place in Restoration. Significantly, it unmans him, so that coitus, even with a woman as lovely and willing as Louise, no longer holds sufficient attraction for him.
The narrative of Merivel glints and morphs like coloured squares of glass in a kaleidoscope. As I have illustrated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to pin this book down, to attempt to corral it into a single genre or style, and it would probably be impertinent to try. I hope, however, that I have managed to convey enough of its flavour to entice others to its pages.